The Central Role of Cities in an Urban Century

No comments

For the first time in human history the majority of the world’s population lives in urban areas, including 80 percent of Americans and 3 billion people worldwide. And this number is only expected to grow – current projections estimate by a third over the next three decades.

Sotc-urban-dataAs you might expect, increasing population growth in cities not only leads to increasing citizen demands on local government, but an entire new ecosystem in which local government must respond and adapt. From the sharing economy to innovation districts to open data policies and much more, city leaders nationwide are already facing disruptions that are upending traditional industries and economic development patterns.

While urban innovation is exciting and welcome, offering new opportunities for a better quality of life for the nation’s city dwellers, these changes are creating unanticipated regulatory challenges. Entirely new or radically reformed industries are being created that must be examined, understood and incorporated into municipal operations, especially if cities are to achieve a vision of inclusive growth in which everyone in their communities can participate.

Within the technology and transportation sphere for example, driverless cars and personal drones are just two new technologies that are well on their way to being a part of our urban environment. Washington, DC as well as a handful of states have passed laws or are in the process of reacting to this coming shift in the driving environment. And, the FAA is deliberating final regulations for the usage of commercial drones in the nation’s airspace.

In a world where the only constant is change, it is imperative that cities allocate time to understanding and weighing the costs and benefits of these emerging technologies and development trends. Waking up one day in 2025 and looking around, do we want our cities to be socially cohesive places where the benefits of growth and new technologies enhance quality of life across a diverse range of demographic groups, or will it be one where disruptive change serves to benefit only a few?

Thinking About Tomorrow Today

Twenty-five years from now may seem like a long time, but really is it that long off? Granted 25 years ago we were all still wearing Jams Shorts and the Berlin Wall just came down, but on a range of economic and social indicators, events and decisions made then provided the groundwork for where we would be going.

During that time in the 1980’s and 90’s, urban challenges marked by decay and the “great hollowing out” of America’s cities would lead few to anticipate that population would be increasing rather than decreasing in our nation’s cities in a matter of decades. But indicators from the steep decline in crime to pop cultural shifts were early signs of what was to come.

We must anticipate and prepare for what could happen twenty-five years into the future, and use this honed foresight to inform public policy decisions. The impacts of a radically changed environment are at times hard to comprehend, but there is an ability to anticipate.

Will climate change be the largest issue or perhaps economic inequality or changing demographics…or perhaps it will be all three and more? For that matter, will the discussion of the singularity, where machine and human intelligence converge, have already come to pass?

If so, entire labor markets will be even more disrupted than we are currently seeing. Through discussions, analysis and a focus on far-reaching thoughts and “moonshot” ideas, the question of what is next should always be at the fore.

The Coming Trends in Our Urban Century

For these reasons, the National League of Cities will publish a yearly benchmarking report on the State of the Cities that will gather data on trends in local government. Launching at the organization’s annual meeting this year in Austin, this analysis will be built on the annual state of the cities addresses that mayors across the country present on city priority areas. Our cities’ mayoral voices provide a unique window into city priorities now and into the future.

Building from this benchmark, five key areas or global drivers will be delved into over the coming years throughBrooks blog graphics-04 NLC’s City of the Future initiative. The global drivers include: economics, climate, technology, culture and demographics.

We will explore these drivers through the lens of a city’s core focus areas, such as housing, economic development and transportation. NLC will be able to provide cities with a usable resource that aligns directly with the long-term decision-making they are engaged in.

Drawing on in-house expertise, partnerships with leading universities and applied usable research, this frame of analysis will work with and help city leaders anticipate coming trends and changes in their cities. The City of the Future initiative encapsulates a 2020-2025-2040 framework, making sure to provide focus areas that are both near-term and recognizable as well as seeking to anticipate the game changing trends of the decades to come.

Cities want to be prepared for what is coming and inherently have a long-term perspective. Proximity, density, culture, employment and options draw people to cities. The city of the future is about people and the great places they live, work and play in. While the only constant in cities is and will continue to be change, thinking about and anticipating what is coming next is inherent for success in our urban century.

A Note on Methodology

For the past four years, the National League of Cities has published an annual State of the Cities blog series analyzing mayors’ State of the City speeches. These blogs typically analyzed around 30 speeches and identified trends in city policy and leadership.

This year, we decided to expand upon this project. To provide a more detailed and thorough analysis of the State of the Cities in 2014, we conducted a content analysis of 100 mayors’ State of the City speeches and tested for 10 major topics, including Economic Development/Jobs, Transportation and Education. We also tested for the prevalence of subthemes of each topic, such as “accelerators”, “entrepreneurship” and “workforce development” within the Economic Development/Jobs topic. You can read more about the methodology here.

Rainwater HeadshotAbout the author: Brooks Rainwater is the Director of the Center for City Solutions and Applied Research at the National League of Cities. Follow Brooks on Twitter at @BrooksRainwater.